Emmanuel Macron is the centrist that Europe deserves – and so desperately needs

His speech at the European Parliament has earmarked him as the voice of sense that we are lacking in the UK and across the world

Jane Merrick
Tuesday 17 April 2018 17:43 BST
Emmanuel Macron says Europe is in a 'civil war' and is 'fascinated with the illiberal' in landmark EU speech

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The great misconception about “centrism” is that it splits the difference between extremes of hard left and far right, and that, in doing so, accepts aspects of both those extremes. That to be centrist on the environment is somehow halfway between climate change denial and the overwhelming global scientific consensus that climate change is real – when, in fact, a centrist would be firmly in the latter camp.

The word “centrism” in the UK has been transformed by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn from meaning the politics of the moderate, common ground, into a term of abuse, much in the same way “liberal” migrated into a slur by right-wing Republican backers of Donald Trump.

Let’s hear it then for the original centrist papa himself, Emmanuel Macron, who has delivered the sort of speech he should have been shouting from the rooftops of the Elysee from the moment he was elected president nearly a year ago. Macron defeated the racist, far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, by a margin of two to one on a platform of centrism and consensus building. He promised to bring unity in France and, as he hinted during his campaign, reform to the European Union. His election was a victory for liberalism over fascism, for community harmony over anti-immigration, for centrism over populism.

During the presidential contest, after 2016 had ushered in Brexit and Trump, it no longer seemed impossible that Front National candidate Le Pen could win – a frightening thought for a country with a living memory of Nazi occupation. So when Macron did triumph, he acknowledged the symbolism of his victory had ramifications beyond France’s borders. But, with anti-immigrant sentiment still flourishing in Europe, this is something he should have repeated over and over during the past year.

His speech, finally, to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday was much needed for Europe today. The controversy over Radio 4’s broadcasting of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, to mark its 50th anniversary, is a reminder of how openly, undeniably racist that address was and, rightly, it was condemned from across the political spectrum at the time. But today, such hatred has crept into our politics more insidiously; it hides in the wide skirts of populism, is given credence by mainstream politicians including – as we are reminded with the Windrush scandal this week – Theresa May, who as home secretary four years ago said she wanted to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has just won a third term landslide based on an anti-immigration, anti-EU campaign, while nationalist parties are also in power in Poland and Austria.

In his speech, Macron warned that the EU faces a “civil war” between liberal democracy and the authoritarian right, and that “there is a fascination with the illiberal that is growing all the time”. “Nationalism will lead Europe into the abyss. We see authoritarianism rising all around us. The response should not be authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” the French president said. “I don't want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past.” This was his key line because, with nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric now mainstream in parts of the EU, sleepwalking is exactly what the bloc, forged from a desperate need to keep totalitarianism at bay in Europe after the Second World War, is at risk of doing.

With the term centrism so derided and distorted in meaning, it is easy to mock Macron for his youthful arrogance – he is still just 40. He has a vision to reform the EU, not to extinguish its core purpose but to modernise it so fewer countries seek to follow Britain out of the door. His decision to place France at the centre of Western military action against Assad over the chemical attack in Douma earlier this month means he will never be celebrated by the Corbynite left in this country.

Yet that is a pity.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, for more than a decade the defender of the moderate centre ground in Europe, has been severely weakened by last year’s elections and her failure to express concern at Orban’s re-election. Theresa May is taking Britain, once the great bulwark against European fascism, out of the picture altogether thanks to Brexit. To anyone who refuses to sleepwalk, who refuses to forget Europe’s past, cast aside your misconceptions about “centrism”, because Macron is now at the frontline against creeping nationalism in Europe.

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